So normally, I’d cover an event like Gov. Christie’s town hall in Bordentown, especially when the most notable back and forth was about Camden. But this one was a little tricky because, well, it was Sue Altman (who also moonlights as my wife when she is not bickering with governors) who was in the middle of a mic-tossing incident. That’s been covered well by a bunch of media outlets, and by Blue Jersey. So I’ll excerpt from there and leave spousal coverage to them, and point to a tangential issue. Why is Gov. Christie lying about how long he’s been in control of the education system in Camden?
So first, here’s what happened (courtesy of Rosi from Blue Jersey):
Public ed advocate/Camden resident Sue Altman stood up and held her ground against Gov. Christie for nearly 6 minutes – correcting him on how long the state’s run Camden schools, calling him out on the hypocrisy of planning far less for Camden than his own administration’s report says is needed, reminding him the kids there can’t even drink the schools’ water.
The audio here isn’t perfect. But it’s so worth your 6 minutes. At one point, Christie just gives up and throws Altman the microphone. For realz. Katie Quinn recorded this; our thanks to her for thinking fast. And Sue. Damn girl, you didn’t let him get away with anything. Thank you.
Alright, so plenty of folks are commenting on the exchange, but I just wanted to pick up on the genuine strangeness of Gov. Christie lying to say that he’s only been in charge of the Camden school system for one year. It’s easy fact-checkable that the governor announced the takeover back in March of 2013. And after the first full year of control (May, 2014), there were widespread protests by students about layoffs of teachers enacted by the state-appointed superintendent. So why lie about it?
The answer comes down to something I hear over and over from Camden activists — and especially from Ray Lamboy, the CEO of the Latin American Economic Development Association. Because Camden is dependent on the state for aid, it becomes a hacky-sack and kicked around based on the political interests of state actors. In other words, when it’s politically important for Camden to get aid (i.e. when a Governor believes he might need to appear bi-partisan and appeal to urban communities as a presidential candidate), then Camden gets aid. But when the same Governor is no longer running for office, but needs to sure up support within the state, he proposes cuts so ugly that even his own state-appointed superintendent in Newark calls them “catastrophic.”
So back to the question at hand — why would the Governor lie about how long he has been in control of the district?
The answer is simple. Taking over Camden was always a mix of political opportunism and conservative ideas. The political opportunism was about using Camden’s low scores (which are driven by the challenges of poverty, special needs, and English as a second language) to make promise miracles (i.e. “fixing” the district quickly with pet choice policies). What anyone paying any attention to education will tell you (and to their credit, what the Camden School District has been honest about here) is that the challenges of the city are deep, and paper macheing new schools and buildings overtop of the same deep challenges face by this community will not radically change education outcomes. And it certainly will not eliminate the gap between this district and others.
But that wasn’t what was promised. And that timeline (we’ll only truly understand the impact of reforms on Camden over the next decade or two) isn’t conducive to the Governor’s political timeline. So instead, he lies, so that the fact that Camden is still struggling compared to the rest of the state (which NEVER was the appropriate comparison, not when he made it as justification for a takeover, not when the Camden School District used it as justification for closing schools, and not now when we judge Gov. Christie’s reforms) he doesn’t want to be left with ownership of Camden’s current state. And this isn’t limited to Gov. Christie. It’s not a coincidence that Gov. Corzine made his promise of $100 million dollars to Camden on the way out the door.
Deep down, governors know that Camden is a multi-generational challenge. They know that the political climate, in which suburbs are happy to dump their problems (drug trade, drug treatment, homeless population, impoverished population) into Camden, but scream bloody murder when tax dollars are used for that community, makes it difficult to enact long-term reforms. It’s why Governor Christie — faced with the humiliation of his interactions with Trump — went back to his bread and butter: a school funding formula that guts urban communities and privileges suburban communities. It’s always good politics to strip funding from urban communities and claim it’s a well-earned tax break for suburban ones.
Seeing changes in Camden will take consistent reforms and funding over decades, and even then, the challenges of poverty, discrimination, deteriorating housing stock, and environmental contamination make such a proposal risky. It’s not popular to say that. It’s less popular to do it, and to face a political climate unforgiving of the fact that investments in Camden face serious challenges and need be judged over the long-term, not in time to claim a political miracle. It’s easier to lie, and leave it for the next governor to try to explain.